Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Review of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion for Free Inquiry Daniel Dennett October 10, 2006

reposted from:

Thanks to Phil Rees (HASSERS Associate) for sending me this review. I have selected some points that particularly interested me on first reading. The whole Dan Dennett review is worth reading.

Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.
We agree about most matters, and have learned a lot from each other, but on one central issue we are not (yet) of one mind: Dawkins is quite sure that the world would be a better place if religion were hastened to extinction and I am still agnostic about that. I don’t know what could be put in religion’s place–or what would arise unbidden–so I am still eager to explore the prospect of reforming religion, a task that cries out for a better understanding of the phenomena, and hence a lot more research than has yet been attempted.

How can a self-declared atheist like me possibly take any form of reformed religion seriously? By recognizing that religions are already evolving rapidly away from their ancestral forms. The religions of tomorrow may be as different from the religions of today as those are from the religions of five hundred years ago. Many avowedly religious people are just as atheistic as Dawkins and I about all the gods that are truly preposterous and dangerous. Still they choose to shape their thinking with a self-sustaining family of metaphors and rituals that seems to them to help them lead good lives. They may not be wrong. Thus belief in God is being displaced by belief in belief in God as the pivotal force of organized religion. This phenomenon of belief in belief still has plenty of problems associated with it, not least of which is the fury with which those for whom it is sacred respond to my exposure of their mental gymnastics. The phenomenon does in any case provide an alternative arena in which to play out some of the issues.

Dawkins’ main objective, which is, as he says in the preface, to raise consciousness in people who are trapped in a religion and can’t even imagine life without it.

I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this goal before reading the book, and I applaud it. Richard Dawkins, first holder of the Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science, is taking his office seriously, and sees that he can use his eminence to perform a social service of great value. Consider the way Oprah Winfrey has used her television program as a consciousness raiser for battered women. How many thousands of women simply couldn’t imagine standing up to their abusive mates or leaving them, let alone calling the police, until Oprah showed them on her daytime program (while horrible hubby was off at work) that this was not just possible but a duty they owed their children! By spearheading this movement, Oprah Winfrey has provided not just direction and resolve, but safety in numbers, and safety in publicity, creating a positive feedback phenomenon that has changed the prevailing attitudes of the nation (with some deplorable pockets of benighted cruelty still surviving, of course–bolstered by the ignoble “traditions” of some religions). Dawkins wants to initiate a similar movement among those who have been afraid to imagine leaving their religions–or just admitting their disbelief. As he well appreciates, this is particularly urgent in the United States, where pronouncements of intimidating piety have reached epidemic proportions. And like Oprah, he is mounting a multi-faceted campaign, with a television series and a website, conspicuously mentioned in his book, which also includes an Appendix providing “a partial list of friendly addresses, for individuals needing support in escaping from religion.”

We need to enlist support and cooperation from like-minded people, and a big part of the problem is that we secularists cannot avail ourselves of some of the most effective methods of the opposition: we cannot permit ourselves to honor irrationality, to celebrate self-blinding devotion that preempts all criticism, or to lie for atheism the way so many eminent and even well-intentioned people lie–knowingly–for their religions.

Our hope lies, I think, in raising the awareness of good people everywhere to the terrible costs of intellectual dishonesty “for the sake of goodness,” and Dawkins’ book is a compendious and vivid exhibit of those costs.

About half of his book covers topics that I also cover in Breaking the Spell: among the most important, the question of how the extravagant behaviors of religion could have evolved in the first place, the question of whether religion is essential for morality (it isn’t), the question of “how ‘moderation’ in faith fosters fanaticism,” and the dangerous role of religious education in early childhood and how to counteract it. On these topics we have no significant disagreements that I can see, but we choose different strategies and emphases. His are sometimes superior to mine. For instance, we both stress the evolution of morality–in spite of, not because of, religious tradition, which has tended to retard progress–but he has gathered a striking collection of examples demonstrating this in very recent history.

we both treat cargo cults as eye-opening examples, but he goes into rather more detail than I did, very effectively. This set me to reflecting on just why it is that these delectable cases of all too human folly are so little known. Why doesn’t everyone know at least in outline the alternately amusing and heart-wrenching story of the people of Tanna, devoutly awaiting the return of John Frum, King of America and dispenser of high-tech bounty? The answer is obvious: it adheres a little too closely for comfort to the stories of the founding of the “great” religions, and would almost surely provoke heretical musings in any child who encountered it.

Both Dawkins and I have to deal with the frustrating problem of the game of intellectual hide-and-seek that “moderate” believers play to avoid being pinned down to the underlying absurdities of their traditions. “Don’t be so literal-minded!” they chortle, marveling at the philistinism of anyone who would attempt to take them at their word and ask them for their grounds for asserting that, for instance, God actually answers prayers (here, now, in the real world, by performing miracles). But then as soon you start playing the metaphor game with them, they abuse the poetic license you have granted them, and delight in dancing around the truth, getting away with all sorts of nonsense because they are indeed playing intellectual tennis without a net. Dawkins’ solution is to adopt a rather less patient attitude than I have done. As a philosopher, I cannot comfortably adopt this policy, since I was trained to hunt for treasure in the confused and confusing gropings of brilliant explorers, and am always encouraging my students to go out of their way to find charitable interpretations.

What do I wish were different in Dawkins’ book? The same thing I wish were different in mine. Sometimes he just cannot conceal his mounting impatience with the arguments he has obliged himself to consider, and when his disrespect, or even contempt, shines through in spite of his strenuous efforts–I know just what he’s going through–he must surely lose many readers. Good riddance to them? Well, no, this is a problem. Serious argument depends on mutual respect, and this is often hard to engender when disagreements turn vehement. The social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament) once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. I have found this a salutary discipline to follow– or, since it is challenging, to attempt to follow. When it succeeds, the results are gratifying: your opponent is in a mood to be enlightened and eagerly attentive. But this is well nigh impossible when the arguments you wish to rebut are too flimsy. For one thing, you fear that hyper-patience will appear patronizing and simply drive other, swifter readers away. For another, we are dealing here with arguments that in most instances no longer have identifiable living exponents. Who stands by the Ontological Argument today? There are historians of philosophy and theology aplenty who will lovingly teach the argument (and its variants and rebuttals and the rebuttals of the rebuttals) but with few exceptions they don’t defend it. It is treated as a interesting historical example, a Worthy Attempt, a jewel in the treasure-house of religion and philosophy, but not as a consideration that demands a response in today’s arena of argument. That being so, giving the argument the Full Rapoport Treatment would be misplaced effort, comically earnest.

Still, what are we to say to those who, not being experts on the arguments themselves, have often heard them spoken of highly, and may well feel entitled to a more patient account? I think I can imagine mustering the good will, the humor, and the pedagogical doggedness to satisfy them, but I certainly couldn’t find the strength to do it now, and on present showing, Dawkins couldn’t either. In that case, then, perhaps it is all for the best that some readers will probably come away from the book more impressed by Dawkins’ disrespect than persuaded by his arguments. Dawkins might even add that when ideas are contemptible, to conceal one’s contempt is dishonest–and since he is so very good at expressing and defending the scientific ideas for which he has respect, this very contrast may, in the end, be a more potent consciousness-raiser than any argument. Perhaps some claims should just be laughed out of court.

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